By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong
U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral actions on Mexico last week have precipitated the most serious crisis in bilateral relations in decades and threaten to further undermine U.S. image and interests throughout Latin America. During last year’s campaign, in the face of Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as rapists and drug-traffickers and repeated pledges that he’d make Mexico “pay for the Great Wall,” President Enrique Peña Nieto adopted a strategy of patience and positive engagement. He paid dearly in political terms for meeting with Trump in August – a misjudgment that worsened his already declining popular approval – but he continued to try to stay on the high road after the election.
- Peña Nieto resurrected former Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, the architect of the Trump meeting last August, as Foreign Minister, and he replaced his ambassador in Washington with one having deep experience with NAFTA and a reputation for calm negotiation, in response to Trump’s repeated demand for a renegotiation of the 1994 accord. As opponents across the political spectrum egged him on to reciprocate Trump’s belligerent tone and strident U.S. nationalism, Peña Nieto – like all Mexican presidents for the past 25 years – tried hard to suppress the anti-Americanism that has lingered beneath the surface of Mexican politics even while the two neighbors have become increasingly integrated economically, demographically, and in governance. Even after Trump’s first barbs following inauguration on January 20, Peña Nieto emphasized his preference for calm dialogue – “neither confrontation, nor submission.” He declared that Mexico doesn’t want walls but bridges, and accepted the American’s demand to renegotiate NAFTA, although with a “constructive vision” that enables both sides to “win,” with “creativity and new, pragmatic solutions.”
Preparations for the summit meeting, scheduled for this week, crashed when Trump – without coordinating with his Mexican counterpart or the appropriate U.S. government agencies – issued executive orders putatively aimed at tightening control of the border. One directed an immediate increase in efforts to deport undocumented Mexicans, and the other launched the “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.” Trump initially abided by an informal agreement with the Mexicans not to repeat his harangue that he was going to make Mexico pay for the wall, but on January 26 he tweeted that “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.” His press spokesman followed up with a suggestion that Washington could impose a 20 percent tariff on imports from Mexico to cover the costs of construction, after which Peña Nieto, facing a firestorm at home, postponed the meeting. The two presidents talked on the phone for an hour the following day and reportedly agreed to let things calm down, although the two sides presented different versions of the chat.
The speed of the trainwreck – in Trump’s first week in office – and the depth of the damage his unilateralism has done to bilateral relations have alarmed many in Mexico and the United States, including Republicans who worked hard to build the relationship. (Only the Administration’s stunning decrees regarding immigration from other parts of the world have overshadowed the mess.) Mexico is, of course, not without leverage and, as Trump stirs up long-repressed Mexican nationalism, Peña Nieto – whose popular support was recently in the garbage bin – is going to have to talk tough (at least) and could have to retaliate. He could impose tariffs on the billions of dollars of Mexican exports that Americans have grown accustomed to having at low prices. Mexico could also opt to diminish cooperation in counternarcotics and other law enforcement efforts, or to cease blocking Central American migrants seeking to reach the U.S. border – interests that the impulsive Trump policy team doesn’t seem to have considered.
Coming on the heels of Trump’s executive order totally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new president is presenting the image of a U.S. leader whose harsh policies and arrogant style serve neither the United States nor Latin America’s interests. Having appointed as White House National Security Council Senior Director for Latin America a political scientist whose writings draw bizarrely on analytic approaches that have been rejected in the discipline for more than 30 years, and whose recent articles lament the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Monroe Doctrine, the region’s leaders will rightly conclude that Washington is voluntarily abdicating any plausible case for leading multilateral cooperation around common interests. The United States and Latin America are inextricably linked, however, and a policy based on stale assumptions of big power unilateralism ultimately will run into insurmountable obstacles: however ignorant Trump and his team are proving themselves to be, we live in the real world of the 21st century, in which imperialist, mercantilist fantasy will be treated with the disdain that it deserves.
January 31, 2017